When Chris died, I had a house (and a storage unit but that’s another story!) full of his things. What should I do with them?
Everyone is different in how they approach the belongings of their partner after their death and there is no right or wrong answer, only what is right for you.
I didn’t want to keep the house as he left it, or to create a shrine to him, but I also didn’t want to remove his presence completely.
It would be fair to say that my husband was a sentimental collector (or as I have been heard to call it, a “bloody hoarder”) of things. In the myriad mystery boxes in the conservatory, garage and loft I discovered a huge collection of model train kits, and a variety of other ephemera including cufflinks and lapel pins, ties, Guinness items, books about aircraft and airports, Manchester ship canal, HS1 and Heathrow commemorative items, branded items from various rail companies, old cigarette cards, and a large box of fir cones(!). I knew that he would have carefully researched and collected these items but at times they caused huge frustration – there was so much and I didn’t know what to do with it all. I have sworn and called him names as I have found yet another box of model trains or lapel pins.
There was also the normal “stuff”. Clothes, tools, the requisite “man box” of cables, books, magazines, toiletries, notebooks, backpacks, cds and records to name a few.
I had to decide what to keep and what to part with, and then what to do with the things I didn’t want. This all happened in stages over about 18 months, with the last 6 months being the most intense as we were moving house and I didn’t want to pay to move things I didn’t want to keep. I am still working through all of this, but this is my story so far – the storage unit will be a tale for another day as it is my next key project (but it is also now 2 hours away, so needs some thought!)
The most helpful thing anyone said to me as I was working through this process was - "the 'stuff' is not your memories" and this was my mantra as I fought the feeling that I was betraying Chris by choosing to remove his things.
A few months after Chris died I decided to redecorate my (as it was now) bedroom and so that was the catalyst to move them, but I couldn’t face the decision about what to keep and what to do with the rest. I bagged up his clothes and put them out of sight, but I didn’t get rid of anything. I couldn’t bear looking at them, but I couldn’t decide what to do with them.People told me I would know when I was ready and they were right. When that time came I sorted his clothes into sentimental, band /festival tshirts, work clothes, and casual clothes.
I have kept his wedding suit and cravat. The suit is with my wedding dress and the cravat is in the memory box, with my tiara. I then chose some of his most often worn clothes and ties and had them made into memory bears for me, my daughters and my nieces. I selected items with identifiable materials – the trousers he would wear to festivals, his favourite shirts and ties, a shirt the girls bought him in Florida, his lucky tie that he wore for important meetings etc. Each section of the bears triggers a memory of him doing something that made him happy.
2. Band T-shirts
I found a box of band and festival t-shirts that Chris had packed away. We had these made into 3 blankets, one each for me and my daughters. They are great for snuggling under while watching TV on chilly evenings, or for sitting in the garden watching the sunset.
3. Work clothes
I donated most of his suits and work shirts to a charity that helps unemployed men back into work, starting with giving them a suit for their interviews
4. Casual clothes
I then put everything else in a big pile and let the girls go through it. Initially I struggled seeing them wearing shirts and tshirts that I remembered him wearing but it comforted them and I am now used to it (although seeing my 16 year old wearing Guinness tshirts feels odd and possibly a bit inappropriate!) They chose the things that they wanted to keep, I kept a couple of tshirts to sleep in, and I donated some to the hospital for men who need day clothes and gave the rest to charity.
This wasn’t a hard one for me, but I know that removing their toothbrush can be heartbreaking for some people. I think I got rid of most of the bathroom toiletries quite early on when I was crying in the shower and threw all his bottles across the room and at the wall! Cleaning it all up later and still bitterly angry, the razors, toothbrush, comb etc all went into a black sack. Not a great memory! I did keep some aftershave that I sometimes smell when I’m missing him.
It was harder to deal with all the medications and spare stoma bags, bottles of ensure, wound dressings etc. If you are reading this because you have a friend going through this, one of the most practical things you can offer to do is to help collect up all the medical stuff and take it back to the pharmacy (and if they won’t take it, to the tip).
Memorabilia and Hobby Collections
Sorting through Chris’s memorabilia and collectables was also something I delayed for about a year. I wish so much that I had spent more time talking to him to find out what triggered his interests and why or how they developed over time. Finding these items was a constant reminder that he was gone, and that my time to learn more about what mattered to him and to know him even better had run out.
The collection I connected to most was the Guinness one – he collected everything including original and replica adverts and posters, ornaments, glasses etc. We visited the Guinness museum on our honeymoon in Dublin, and we had enjoyed many conversations about their advertising etc and so I understood the attraction there. Conversely, in all our time together I never saw him actually build a model train, but there were boxes and boxes of modelling equipment and pages of designs that he had drawn. Building the models was always something he put off because of work or other competing priorities. He got several of them out of storage when he was first off sick, planning to use his recovery period to finally create his design, but he deteriorated too quickly for that to happen.
After months of organising and reorganising boxes, battling with the sense that I was somehow betraying him, I decided to keep something small from each “category” as a reminder of him, and then looked for new homes for the remainder. Other suggestions I had from people were to take photographs before letting the items go.
Eventually I found a specialist auctions service in Newbury, and they have been really helpful in taking the model train collection off my hands and finding new homes for them. They have done the same with most of the transport related items (although not books) and the Guinness things I haven’t wanted. Every now and again I get a cheque through the post as some of the items have sold.
The Cufflinks and tie pins have been taken with me on visits to friends and relatives and I have encouraged people to choose one or two things to keep as a reminder. I am now trying to find a way to display what’s left, possibly in a box frame. They feel too personal to just drop off at a charity shop, but that might change.
I always thought that I was bad with holding onto books, but Chris took this to another level! Again, apart from fiction, they fell into categories. I won’t say too much on this as I know that there are more to deal with in the storage unit. My strategy so far has been to decide whether a topic interests me or is likely to be useful to the girls as they grow older, or if it reminds me of Chris in a positive way. Of the ones that remind me of Chris, I have kept one or two books and then donated the rest but this has been one of the more difficult areas for me. My aim is to review this periodically to see if I feel ready to part with any more.
I also found a lot of notebooks – They have all been packed away, there is something about seeing his handwriting that I can’t let go of them yet. Cards and notes to each other are in the memory box.
I admit to a complete fail on this. Music was so much part of our lives. I can’t bear to donate or sell any of it, but I’m also having difficulty working out how/where to store his extensive catalogue of vinyl and CDs! I will review this in a year and see whether I feel any differently, but this is an area where I know I am not ready to let go.
One of my most heartbreaking finds was a little plastic bag with the tickets from probably every gig or concert we went to at least up until we got married – they are in the memory box too. (They may feature in a later post).
Tools and the man cave
I remember very soon after the funeral I hired a skip and did my first round of tackling the garage, initially with the help of Chris’s brother and sister before they returned to the USA. I have to admit that I can’t actually remember what went in the skip! It is all such a blur, there are about 3 months where any detail is very fuzzy. I know we also did a lot of organising so that things were easier for me to find, and the main aim was to make space for me to move things I didn’t want to look at or deal with! Just before we moved we went through the tools and one of my daughters claimed a full set of everything she recognised from her 2 years of Design Tech GCSE or remembered helping Chris with.
This has all happened in stages over the last 2 years. I joined an online decluttering course which was really helpful and provided me with support, but there were very few people in similar circumstances to me. I am still a long way from the clutter free home that I really want. And I still have the storage unit to face.
My top tips
As I have sorted through various spaces and both my and Chris’s belongings I have used these criteria for keeping or letting go, based partly on a combination of the philosophies of Marie Kondo and William Morris –
Is it useful? Will one of us in the family use this item, or will it gather dust until my daughters have to sort out my stuff? What will I do with it? (I have made exceptions for things that my daughters might use when they set out on their own in a few years). Is there another member of the family that would find this useful?
Is it beautiful? Will I display it or will it sit in a box in the garage? I think about where I might put it, even if it might be on rotation. I have a large antique green Apothecary bottle that Chris inherited. It has no use at all, and I don’t know the history of it but we both loved the colour, shape and aesthetic of it. My daughters hate it - they can donate it when I'm gone.
Does it trigger a good or happy memory? I have kept some things because I remember when and where it was bought, or it reminds me of him in another way. Equally I have released things that didn’t hold any meaning to me, even if I knew he liked them, although I have always checked with his family first in case it has meaning to them.
Does it trigger a special memory? Very soon after Chris died I bought a wooden box to use as a memory box. The sympathy cards went in first, but it is now full of things I found in the house that are special but I wouldn’t want on display – photos, cards, concert tickets, his haiku notebooks, our wedding order of service, and other items that recall special memories.
Does it have a value? If they don't meet the other criteria, low value items have been given to charity shops or recycled where possible, and higher value items have been given as gifts or taken to the auctioneers.
Can I let it go now without harming my own mental health? There have been some things (like the music) that I simply can't let go of yet. To do so would not be helpful or beneficial for me and would cause too much stress and pain. It is important not to rush this process, or to be rushed.
After the funeral, we are set on a path of slowly letting go of the physical reminders of our person. Some things will be easy to release, others will be harder.
There is no rush, you will know when you are ready. And don’t let anyone force you to part with anything until you are.
I will tell you one secret though – the box of random cables went in the skip, and nothing bad has happened (so far)!!